The scene was Christmas four years past at the North Stamford Wendt manse-the must-be-seen-at holiday gathering for Connecticut’s corporate elite. Epernay champagne flowed; sturgeon from the Caspian sea had surrendered their eggs for the caviar, and the salmon was flown in fresh from Scotland. Men outfitted in black tie and women in classic velvet and silk gowns mingled, chatting amiably about raising kids, vacation plans, and recent golfing triumphs.
Through this stage set-like corporate gathering wafted the hostess, wife of the then-CEO of GE Capital. Flawlessly turned out from head to toe, Lorna Wendt smiled graciously as she welcomed her guests. Nothing in her voice or manner during the evening betrayed the fact that five days earlier she’d been told by her husband Gary that, as she would later put it, she was “being fired as the CEO of the Wendt family.”
But after the dust settled, Lorna put the political skills she’d picked up during 32 years of playing the perfect corporate wife toward a different purpose-namely making an issue of just how big a role a supportive spouse plays in an executive’s business success. She launched a public campaign seeking half of Gary Wendt’s assets, including stock options, and, after a drawn out and very public squabble, emerged with $20 million and a new passion-running the Stamford, CT-based Institute for Equality in Marriage.
“I gave up who I was,” she now tells attendees of her foundation’s seminars. “Do I regret that? No. But was I as smart as I am now? No. At the time, that was what was expected of a spouse.”
Not any more. CEO spouses, executive recruiters, and career and marital counselors are all quick to point out that the traditional role of the executive spouse-or, as one CEO spouse disparagingly put it, “the soulless Stepford wife”-is as passe as cars with fins.
Sure, many CEO spouses still choose to stay at home and raise the children, run the household, entertain elegantly, and do everything possible to support their partners’ career goals. Elizabeth Mirante, whose husband Arthur is chief executive of Cushman & Wakefield, for example, sees her role as that of a mother to her son Matthew and a homemaker. “I’m there for Arthur 100 percent,” declares Mirante, who adds that after a successful career as a Zoli fashion model she has “nothing to prove.”
But that’s no longer considered the only, let alone the preferable, route. “The beauty of being a CEO’s wife today is that there really are no rules to follow,” says Sheila Bonsignore, whose husband Michael is CEO of Honeywell. “You have total latitude to be yourself. The only role you have to play is the one you and your husband agree on.”
More and more couples seem to be agreeing that independent identities and separate careers or outside interests are better for all three concerns: husband, wife, and corporate entity. “The survival plan for CEO spouses is to develop independent personalities of their own, and not to look to their [partner’s] company and title for an identity,” asserts Joan Dunphy. Her own independence from husband Dermot Dunphy, chairman of Sealed Air, comes from her role as publisher and editor of Pennsylvania-based New Horizon Press. Thanks in part to her husband’s experiences in his first marriage, she and he set ground rules before their own. One was that Joan “wasn’t going to follow the ’70s model of being a mother and hostess and being seen and not heard,” she reports. Another decreed that she and Dermot “would spend all weekends together and a minimum of three weekday nights.”
Still another rule—-Dermot committing to quality time with their kids—-had her husband getting up at 5 a.m. to shuttle their first daughter to ice skating class. (She later became a nationally ranked ice dancer and recently graduated from Harvard.) The overall result is a balance that, concedes Dunphy, is quite different from that of her husband’s first marriage. “His kids from his first marriage have actually said, ‘Dad, I wish you could have been this kind of father to us,’ she reports.
Dunphy, too, makes compromises, taking part in her husband’s business entertaining-within reason. “I do lunch, but not dinner,” she reports.
For Susan Morgan, wife of Acxiom CEO Charles Morgan, business entertaining and accompanying her husband on work-related trips are a way of life, but one she couples with an independent career. “When a situation or event comes up, I make a decision as to whether I can contribute, and if I can, I make arrangements to be there with him,” says Morgan, who owns and manages a Norrell staffing services franchise in Little Rock, AR. “If it’s something I can’t participate in, then I stay and work in my business.”
Business trips average one to two a month for the couple, who also host a fair number of business gatherings at their home. “It runs from another couple to as many as 50 for a sit-down dinner,” says Morgan, a former Miss Arkansas. “In keeping with the environment and culture at Acxiom, Charles likes to have associates, customers, or a leadership team in our home and create an environment where they feel welcome and appreciated by both of us.”
While Morgan enjoys her role as a part of Acxiom’s extended family, she is equally committed to continuing her own career. “I think I’ll always need to be involved in something and to know that I’m creating value,” she says. “For my own self worth, I think that’s important.”
Having an extensive business background has also given her a valuable perspective on her husband’s work. “It’s given me an understanding of what’s necessary to be successful,” adds Morgan, who was a vice president at a larger temporary staffing firm when she met her husband four years ago. “I’m very capable of filling my life and time, so if Charles needs to spend time developing a new product, I’m not over there saying, ‘What about me?’ I’m able to give him the space and room and understanding he needs.” When such independence comes coupled with earning capability, a “power couple” can alternate the role of principal breadwinner. After the Southern California car dealership chain Peter Ellis owned went bankrupt, his wife Susie rolled up her sleeves and went to work, freeing Peter to launch and build Autobytel. “I knew my husband was interested in abandoning the classic automobile distribution system and finding a way to sell cars on the Internet,” recounts Ellis, who had an MBA from UCLA, an expertise in the health spa industry, and a client list that included the likes of Donald Trump. “So I told him that I’d go back to work and pay the bills so he could concentrate on working out his new business idea.
“The role of the spouse is to ‘add value’ to the relationship,” she explains, “and I added value to ours by giving my husband the economic independence to develop his own ideas.”
Suzie Cannavino, whose husband Jim was president and CEO of IBM’s PC division, also sees self-reliance, rather than life as an appendage to a spouse’s career, as essential for a healthy relationship. For her that sense of identity comes from her role as master of foxhounds for the century-old Rombout Hunt, a lofty-sounding title that actually involves running a multi-million-dollar equestrian business.
“It’s a given that any man destined to become the CEO of a corporation will be different from other men, and he’ll have less time for the ordinary things in life, such as family,” asserts Cannavino, as she watches thoroughbred fox hunters graze outside her home on Gone Away Farm in Dutchess County, NY. “The CEO’s spouse can only survive and remain mentally healthy if she accepts this, and develops outside interests totally independent of her husband and his business interest.”
AT WHAT COST?
But what if developing outside interests or an independent career means abdicating the traditional support-role responsibilities of a CEO spouse? Will the absence of a supportive spouse impair an ambitious executive’s ability to rise to the top? After all, while a spouse solely devoted to supporting a partner’s career has never been a defined prerequisite for the CEO post, behind closed doors many boards have long viewed that traditional family structure as an asset.
And some still do. Russ Reynolds, a widely respected executive search expert, argues that an adroit and supportive wife can “make” a husband’s career. As an example, he points to Phil Caldwell, former chairman and chief executive of Ford Motors, whose wife, he says, “contributed greatly to her husband’s success.”
Self-described as “of the old school,” Reynolds sees the CEO spouse’s role as being supportive and helping his or her mate climb the corporate ladder. He warns that “independence” only works when a spouse isn’t overly competitive with his or her mate and recounts the tale of a female investment banker as an example. The banker felt she was being discriminated against because she was earning “only” $200,000, while her husband was taking in $2 million as CEO of another investment bank. “I told her that she was hurting her husband by being too competitive,” he says. “I said, `If you’d support your husband instead of competing against him, he’d be making $4 million a year.’ “
Conversely, a new generation of recruiting professionals sees an overly involved spouse-and in some cases any spouse at all as a liability rather than an asset. Mark Goulston, who serves as a consultant to high-tech California firms, compares the corporate fast track to a Grand Prix auto race, noting that the car with the “lowest drag coefficient” goes furthest fastest. In the fast-paced technology-centered realm, he says, a high-maintenance spouse is seen as a distraction that translates into a high “drag coefficient.” The need to derive self esteem from a spouse’s job or job title is likely to be equally detrimental to the executive’s partner–which, in turn, is detrimental to marital harmony. “The typical CEO is married to the job, not his or her family,” points out Martin Minsk, a clinical psychologist who deals with executives in family crisis situations. A CEO spouse without an independent identity, whether that comes from a career or from community affairs, he says, “will be miserable.”
And when misery turns into divorce, everybody loses. The corporate reefs were once littered with the wrecks of formerly promising CEO candidates shunted aside to vice chairmanships or other lesser titles because they violated the corporate anathema against divorce. But this, too, has changed. In an era where 40 percent of all marriages end in divorce court, divorce no longer casts as dark a shadow on an executive’s image.
Of course, there are divorces, and there are ugly divorces. It’s been whispered that Gary Wendt’s bitter, headline-generating divorce was partly to blame for his departure from GE Capital. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that a mismanaged personal life took a toll on an executive’s business affairs. Bill Agee of Bendix, whose legendary affair and subsequent marriage to Mary Cunningham, one of his VPs, is one example. “During this period,” recounts Reynolds, “Bendix was involved in a bitter takeover fight and the chairman of the target company sniped, ‘What makes Bill Agee think he can manage our affairs when he can’t even manage his own?’ “
Even when the trauma doesn’t carry over into the workplace, divorce is inevitably costly-both emotionally and financially. The Wendt divorce, coupled with the issue of independence, has fueled new controversy over the long-debated issue of dividing assets. Lorna Wendt’s argument held that corporate wives-often having dedicated their prime earning years to advancing their husbands’ careers are entitled to a 50 percent stake of the spoils of success.
But what of the “independent” spouse? Does the current trend toward independence upset the post-Lorna Wendt 50 percent settlement equation? Richard Olivieri, a New York City matrimonial lawyer who has sparred in these kinds of high-profile divorce cases, says it does. He points out that a spouse with an independent career or business shouldn’t need assets from his or her partner.
Yet many spouses pursuing independent interests have clearly had to curb their efforts due to limitations imposed by being a CEO’s wife or husband. Sheila Bonsignore, for example, has followed her husband through 11 corporate moves. “Like it or not,” she shrugs, “there will be occasions where you have to pick up and go, and those outside interests of yours have to take a back seat. I’ve lived in 11 different cities, and in each one I’ve tried to establish, for my own mental health, an independent personality.”
Some women found that their marriages reactivated the glass ceiling effect. “The attitude of [colleagues and management] was that one in a family is enough,” explains one CEO’s spouse. “Your husband is making the big bucks, so stand aside and let someone else get ahead who needs the money.”
For others, it’s a choice. Lynn Cassetta, whose husband Sam is chairman and CEO of SmartServ Online, found that her high-profile job with a Japanese trading company was too demanding to allow the kind of home life the Cassettas wanted. “But I wasn’t about to become a couch potato,” she says. Educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and the London College of Art, Cassetta launched a successful decorative painting business. “This gives me the best of both worlds,” she asserts. “It means I have an independence and identity all my own, and at the same time it’s close enough to home to have the kind of home life I was committed to.”
Susan Morgan made a similar move, leaving a large-scale corporate environment for the flexibility afforded by owning her own franchise. “At the company I worked for when Charles and I met, there would probably have been no way I could have continued the involvement I had and been able to be involved in Charles’ role,” she notes, adding that the decision was prompted by a shift in priorities. “There are things in life you make note of and things you want to be known for. I know I’ve been successful in business. I know I’ve been successful as a mother to my son. I think I was really wanting to develop and work on being successful at a marriage and a relationship and being a partner.”
For the Morgans, that’s “a two-way street,” says Susan, who sometimes heads to Florida or Arizona for board meetings or franchisee conferences with Charles in tow. “He loves to be in the spouse program; he says it’s great,” she reports. “He also came with me when I was running in a marathon in Dublin, Ireland. He knew I’d trained for it and it was important to me and he met me at one of the mile markers, jogged two miles with me and cut through and waited for me at the finish. That was all about me, about something I wanted to do.”
It’s no longer only female spouses who voluntarily stunt their own careers or abandon them altogether when a partner assumes a powerhouse role. Frank Fiorina, husband of Hewlett-Packard CEO Carleton, retired from AT&T in 1998 to spend more time with his wife reportedly at her urging. Other male spouses who have filled the role of primary parent and principal homemaker include the husband of OppenheimerFunds CEO Bridget Macaskill, a former investment banker; Schwab vice chairman Dawn Lepore’s husband, who quit his computer programmer job at a credit card company, and Saturn CEO Cynthia Trudell’s husband, who’s taken long-term leave from teaching high school math on several occasions to pitch in at home.
With more and more women scaling the peaks of corporate America, such scenarios may be increasingly common. Already there’s evidence of this shift. A recent article in Fortune magazine reported that of the country’s “50 most powerful women” nearly 10 percent had husbands who had stepped back from their own careers in deference to those of their wives.
And others have considered it. Jeremy Diamond reports that he and his wife, Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of Lebenthal, have discussed the possibility of him leaving his job to devote more time to their children, six-year-old Ben and three-year-old Charlotte (see sidebar p. 48). While Diamond has so far opted to continue his successful career as president and publisher of Grant’s Financial Publishing, he points out that because his wife’s role is within a family dynasty it would be “more difficult for her to walk away” from her responsibilities.
MINIMUM STAGE REQUIREMENT
Whether male or female, both those spouses who seek independence and those comfortable with a more traditional role are quick to note that certain obligations are inescapable, not to mention time consuming and exhausting. While there is more acceptance——and even encouragement——of dual career marriages (84 percent of America’s families are now two-paycheck couples), the very nature of the high-profile CEO seat demands a minimum amount of participation from both partners. And, sure, trotting the globe may sound glamorous, but it’s also exhausting—-as are the political machinations that come hand-in-hand with the perks of affluence and a busy social life.
“Like it or not, you are on display,” says Ronnie Pollard, who’s been married to Arnie (Chief Executive magazine’s own CEO) for 34 years. “As the CEO’s wife, you represent the company. A woman in that position, no matter what her extracurricular activities, has to realize that she essentially has a job with the company. It’s a wonderful job with a lot of perks, but it comes with responsibilities.”
And those can be uniquely challenging. As a CEO spouse who didn’t wish to be quoted pointed out, “Remembering names isn’t that easy when the man you are meeting may have been divorced since the last time you met, and that woman on his arm might be wife number two or his girlfriend.”
You also have to be careful what you say, notes Jane Shalom, wife of Audiovox CEO John Shalom. “The secret words are 17h-huh,’ and ‘Well, that’s new,’ ” she explains. “That’s what you say when you’re trying not to let on you know something confidential or to break a confidence.”
In short, no matter how independent a husband or wife is from his or her spouse’s title and career, certain obligations are inescapable—-whether you’re the traditional spouse that Lorna Wendt was or the independent mate she now counsels you to be. “The problem with being a CEO’s wife is that there’s no handbook or guide to help you anticipate different situations and to tell you what to do in them,” says Susie Ellis. “What CEO spouses need is their own business roundtable to act as a support group.”
In a sense that’s what a reinvented Lorna Wendt is trying to provide. Four years after weathering that Christmas gathering and enduring the subsequent trauma and aftermath of a messy divorce, Wendt has a career, not as the CEO of the Wendt family, but as the CEO of Lorna Wendt and the founder of The Institute for Equality in Marriage, an organization that pledges “to advocate marriage as a partnership between equals and to promote the idea that society should view both the monetary and non-monetary contributions to a marriage with equal weight.”
Crisscrossing the nation holding seminars advising women on everything from financial planning to how stock options factor into divorce settlements, Wendt also talks about a whole new generation of CEO spouses who are redefining traditional roles. In fact, stepping out of her marriage has given her a fresh perspective on what she now views as a social revolution-and a positive one.
“Thirty-two years ago when I married Gary, as soon as you had children, assuming your husband could afford it, you gave up your job to raise the kids,” she says. “Nowadays, whether or not they need the money, women want the fulfillment of their own careers. They expect to be independent.”
With the promotion of Andrea Jung to the president and CEO post at Avon, three women-including Carleton Fiorina of H-P and Marion Sandler of Golden West Financial-now head Fortune 500 companies. Close on their heels are a formidable army of female CEOs, including Margaret Whitman of eBay, Shelly Lazarus of Ogilvy & Mather, Catherine Black of Lifetime, Cynthia Trudell of Saturn Motors, Bridget Macaskill of Oppenheimer-Funds, and scores more, heaving respectably sized-albeit not Fortune 500 ranked-firms.
The husbands of these powerhouse women are faced with the typical CEO spouse dilemma: downgrade or abandon altogether their own careers to assume the family’s child-rearing and household needs, taking the path traditionally followed by many CEO wives, or deal with the inevitable juggling of responsibilities that comes with a partnership where both partners are involved in demanding professions. As with women in the CEO spouse role, either option requires a healthy amount of self esteem.
“Any man who’s married to a woman with the drive to become a CEO has to have a strong sense of self worth,” says Jeremy Diamond, the husband of Lebenthal CEO Alexandra Lebenthal. Diamond says he’s considered surrendering his job as president and publisher of Grant’s Financial Publishing in order to devote more time to their children, six-year-old Ben and three-year-old Charlotte. “To those who do, I say, more power to them,” he adds.
Bill Higgins, whose wife Barbara Corcoran is the founder of Corcoran Group real estate, did-and with a vengeance. A retired FBI agent and Navy captain turned real estate entrepreneur, Higgins sold his own company in 1997 and now doles out business cards bearing the title “spouse” when accompanying his wife to corporate gatherings. “People get a kick out of it,” he says. “What started as a joke has turned serious, culminating with Higgins launching a Web site, www.spouseclub.com; giving interviews on spousehood to The New York Times; and chatting with Hillary Clinton on the corporate hubby role.
“It’s stressful, because from a self-esteem standpoint, as your wife becomes more and more successful, you start questioning your worth,” he says, adding that his marriage to Barbara-which represents round two of matrimony for both Higgins and Corcoran-forced him to rethink long-held views. “I’m getting paid back for everything I did to my former wife,” he jokes. “Since I’ve been there and done that, I know when something comes up and Barbara doesn’t show up for dinner, there’s a reason. It’s not that I don’t count, or that our son doesn’t.”
For Diamond and Lebenthal, pursuing success in business, marriage, and child rearing has meant a careful balance of parenting responsibilities. “We make sure our kids don’t think, ‘Mommy’s in charge,’ or ‘Daddy’s in charge,’ ” he explains. “We make sure that they understand that we’re both in charge and both involved in their upbringing.”
Higgins’ second marriage brought asecond shot at fatherhood. “I have two kids from my first marriage, so this is a second chance for me,” he says of his hands-on role with sixyear-old Tommy, his son with Corcoran. “There are a lot of things I do now with my son that I wouldn’t have had the time for before.”
In their marriage, it’s Corcoran who struggles for that oh-so-elusive quality time. “I think one of her biggest regrets is being stretched so thin; her time is committed to business 75-25 with a goal of getting to 50-50,” he says.
It’s issues like these-and the prospect of helping other men struggling with the difficulties of marriage to a high-powered executive-that spawned his Web site. “Going against the traditional concept where the husband is the provider and the woman the primary parent can be a problem if you don’t address these things up front in your marriage and lay out what’s important to you and to her,” he asserts, adding that as the ranks of male CEO spouses continue to swell, more and more couples will confront such hurdles. “There are already a lot of retired guys-and guys whose wives have excelled far in excess of what they achieved-in this position, and it will be more common as society continues to mature and more women assume the lead role. With spouseclub.com my goal is to provide a forum for conversation and exchange of ideas about the issues.”
While not topping the list, the gender bias of spouse programs may soon be a target. “When we went to Santa Barbara for a board meeting,” recounts Higgins, “I was the only guy at the spouse lunch, which was kind of fun. But in Dubai last October the program was all about shopping while my interest was more like riding SUVs around the sand dunes.”
The Stock Option Merry-Go-Round
Unfortunately, some CEO couples don’t end up living happily ever after. Picture this scenario: Marital bliss is a thing of the past in your household. When the relationship started to go south, your spouse searched the Net using the keyword divorce. That single keyword spewed forth dozens of Web sites with details about the Black-Scholes Option Pricing Model, the criteria for marital property and equitable distribution in your state, and a number of precedent-setting family law cases.
Armed with this information and a pretty good understanding of the entitlement process, he or she visits an attorney to discuss the options-specifically, your stock options-and your hard-won financial assets are suddenly up for grabs.
If you think such a scenario couldn’t happen to you, think again. With a little help from the Internet and media coverage of high-profile cases, spouses are a lot savvier these days. Ultimately, you’re risking serious financial consequences, if you underestimate your spouse’s ability to glean information that could be used in a divorce action.
What are you up against? Frankly, a lot. Aside from more savvy spouses, the courts are in a state of confusion about the stock option issue. Surprisingly, a number of states don’t have existing case law on the matter. “You have some courts making decisions and others that haven’t addressed it yet, then [the latter] look to other courts because they have no binding authority in their own courts to guide them,” says Richard Olivieri, a NY-based attorney.
And even though most people are aware of the Black-Scholes method, the courts have rejected it in many cases. According to Miriam Mason, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, “The problem is that it was formulated to value marketable stock options. No real method has been established for unmarketable securities.”
Olivieri says the approach is akin to hedging a bet. “I think the gentlemen who came up with the Black-Scholes method looked at the gambling industry, and it was a main factor in how they came up with their formula for valuations…. So that tells you how flimsy these valuations really are.”
Beyond the difficulty of obtaining accurate valuations, the question of entitlement remains the centerpiece of many divorce actions. According to Olivieri, the stalemate is “about who’s really entitled to what” and that’s where you can get burned. Often, the value is stipulated, but the parties fight over entitlement once that value is assigned. “Usually the cases where one party has everything and the other party doesn’t [are difficult],” he says.
While all this may sound as if you have no way to put out the fire, a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) can resolve disputes quickly. Commonly used for pension plans, QDROs are now being used for stock options, too. Drafting this court-executed order that divides financial assets will expedite the whole entitlement process, says Philadelphia, PA-based attorney Richard Maimed. “A QDRO is the best [way] to transfer ownership because it’s a simple document to get the court to sign, and you may be able to get the profits taxed at the lower party’s tax rate,” he contends.
While the stock option issue has become prevalent in divorce actions, more couples are addressing it before they get married. “Marriage is a contract and it needs to be spelled out so you know what you’re getting into…. I’m hearing that young people are writing [stock options] into prenuptials,” says Lorna Wendt, founder of the Stamford, CT-based Institute for Equality in Marriage.
In fact, Olivieri says that he does more prenuptial agreements than anything else now. “You have more people getting married in their thirties or forties and they already have a house, apartments, or stocks,” he notes. Still, he warns, “the more time you are married, the less value that prenuptial has…”
The bottom line is that it’s a fuzzy issue that’s only getting fuzzier. “It’s always going to be one of those areas that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis,” notes Olivieri. “I don’t really see how anyone is going to be able to come up with some set formula to figure out what all of this is worth.”